A toddler’s first lie

It’s impossible to count how many new skills your toddler will pick up before they leave the toddler years behind. Running, jumping, and chattering like a little parrot are all pretty exciting new skills, even if they can come with some new challenges. Learning how to lie, on the other hand, can be a little more of a mixed bag. Still, according to one study, around 90% of all 4-year-olds lie, and many start much earlier, so it’s an issue that most parents have to deal with at one point or another.

Why do toddlers lie?

Toddler lies aren’t generally that complicated, and can be pretty easy for a savvy adult to see right through, so it might not be too much of a surprise to hear that they’re often not planned out in advance with the goal of deceiving loving parents or caregivers. Instead, the first toddler lies are often just instinctive denials (no, Baby doesn’t know who ate the last cookie, no, they didn’t take that toy that’s in their hand from their playmate) or spur-of-the-moment inventions (It was their baby sister who painted the dog green!).

Lies like these can be tied up in the fact that what toddlers want most, generally, is to please their parents and caregivers. Your little one can’t please you by going back in time and not spilling paint on the rug, but they can read the fact that you’re not too happy with the spill, and try to redirect that unhappiness in the direction of their infant sibling, favorite pet, or imaginary friend – even if you can see the guilt written in paint all over their hands.

As toddlers’ understanding of the truth evolves, more and more of the lies they tell also become more socially acceptable “white lies,” or lies told to spare someone’s feelings. Before too long, these kinds of lies start to become an expected part of polite behavior, and toddlers’ growing understanding of morality can start to guard against the other type of lie.

The occasional lie is a totally normal part of toddler development, and can actually be a sign of imagination and intelligence. How you, your partner, and any other caregiver in Baby’s life respond to these fibs can help determine their truthfulness as they grow, not the tendency to experiment with untruths to begin with.

How to handle toddler fibbing

Dealing with a toddler who doesn’t always tell the truth often works best as a two-pronged attack – first, the way you respond to a lie in the moment that Baby is telling it, and second, the way you talk to them about truthfulness in general during all the times of the day when they isn’t fibbing.

  • In the moment: If you know your toddler has been telling you some things that are less than true lately, and you find them in a situation you think they might be tempted to lie about, the best way to keep them from lying is not to give them the chance. Instead of “Did you break it?” a direct, “Looks like it’s broken, let’s clean it up” can both reinforce the idea of logical consequences for an action and limit the opportunities for lying. If Baby does lie, getting angry about it may only encourage them to lie better next time. If Baby is lying to try to avoid getting in trouble, having consequences that make sense to them can help keep their worry about the truth getting out from getting out of hand. This could mean getting them to help clean up any mess they made, or supervising them when they wash their hands if they have been fibbing about getting them clean before meals.
  • In general: Generally, talking about the consequences of not telling the truth, and how it can hurt people’s feelings, is a good place to get started teaching Baby about morality, and praising them for telling the truth, and for volunteering information, is an even better one. Positive reinforcement is a great way to let Baby know how important telling the truth is in your family without getting upset when they say something that isn’t.

  • Mehera Bonner. “Punishing Kids for Lying Only Makes Them Lie More.” Time. Time Inc., December 10 2014. Web.
  • Megan Gibson. “Are Lying Children Naturally Smarter?” Time. Time Inc., June 14 2010. Web.
  • Eileen Kennedy-Moore. “Why Kids Lie and What to Do About It.” PBS. PBS, November 16. Web.
  • Kang Lee. “Little Liars: Development of Verbal Development in Children.” Child Development Perspectives. 7(2): 91-96. Web. June 2013.
  • Victoria Talwar, Kang Lee. “Social and Cognitive Correlates of Children’s Lying Behavior.” Child Development. 79(4): 866-881. Web. July-August 2008.
  • Victoria Talwar, Susan M. Murphy, Kang Lee. “White lie-telling in children for politeness purposes.” International Journal of Behavioral Development. 31(1): 1-11. Web. Jan. 2007.
  • Romeo Vitelli. “When Does Lying Begin?” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, November 11 2013. Web.
  • “The truth about lying.” Scholastic. Scholastic Inc. Web.
  • “The truth about lying? Children’s perceptions get more nuanced with age.” McGill. McGill University, October 5 2016. Web.
  • “Toddlers who lie ‘will do better.’” BBC. BBC, May 17 2010. Web.

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